Coming to Life in the City of the Dead

Varanasi, India. Population, approximately 1.5 million living and 1 gazillion* dead. For death is big business in this holiest of cities. Hindus bring their dead to burn along the huge ghats (steps) that run into the river Ganges, often with tourists looking on as they try to take sneaky pictures with their phones. Wood merchants make a fortune providing tinder for the funeral pyres. Sandalwood is the most luxurious. Poor people have to fling their unfortunate relatives into the river having burnt only as much of them as they can afford. People come here to die, for a Varanasi death is an auspicious one. Who wouldn't want to liberate themselves from the possibility of becoming a dung beetle in the next life by dint of where they breathed their last?

Other things that were dead when I arrived there in August 2009. 1) my relationship of two and a half years, though we had decided to honour the trip to India together on account of the split being amicable and 2) my job at a film magazine (I was about to hand in my notice) and life as I generally knew it. In a few months time, I was headed off to live in a community in central California and spend some time Figuring S**t Outâ„¢.

I had been in recovery from drink, drugs and an eating disorder for over a decade. I was tired of talking about my problems, tired of the solipsistic, onanistic quality of my existence. They say that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I had been reflecting on my life too intensely, and for too long. I had started to feel like both magnifying glass and ant. If one more person asked me how I was really feeling about something, I was just going to ask them to pull my finger.

I wanted to be free. I wanted to learn to trust myself. I wanted to be creative and happy and spontaneous without having to keep a record of that and talk it through with a trained professional. 

It wasn't surprising that I fell ill with flu as soon as we arrived in the city formerly known as Benares. I spent the first night shivering in my sleeping bag as the sounds of chanting and bells wafted up from the streets below and the orange glow of the funeral pyres on Manikarnika ghat rose beyond the building that obscured it.

When I had recovered sufficiently, our hostel arranged a boat tour of the stretch of the Ganges immediately beyond our hostel. Our tour guide, Sanjay, had grown up next to the river. To prove it, he scooped up a handful of water, thrusting aside a flip-flop floating sole-up in the brown water, and drank it. Tourists can get vomiting and diarrhoea bugs just from ingesting a single drop. The fact that he had just willingly consumed water that was 3000 times above the safe WHO guidelines made me wonder if he himself was actually dead.

But zombie or not, Sanjay knew the vicinity like the back of his hand, and he suggested that for a small fee (natch) we went to the unpopulated east bank, where the river regularly returned some of the death paraphernalia-humans included- that was so enthusiastically given to it. Burial shrouds billowed across the sand like lost wraiths. Tea light offerings still burned amongst discarded flowers and various human skeletal parts.

"Look," said Sanjay. "A skull."

He picked it up and held it aloft. "Take it home, if you like," he waved it nonchalantly at our little group of horrified Europeans like Hamlet would have if he could just have been born in the age of Prozac. I pictured getting the skull through customs. I pictured the it sitting somewhere on display in my flat in Thames Ditton. It occurred to me that it was the kind of thing that my eccentric father would have done. I declined, and settled for a couple of tea-light holders instead. They were less likely to haunt me.

The next day, my ex and I set out to walk the length of the ghats. The streets around our hostel were coated in a grey, sludgy filth. Some of this, of course, was the ubiquitous filth of India; discarded rubbish, rotting vegetation and dung of both human and animal variety. But Varanasi has its own particular brand of dirt; grimy, oily, filth-infused ash, a by-product of the 24/7 body-burning. I grimaced as some of it oozed between my toes.

After we'd been walking for a minute or so, we passed an old man with gnarled, arthritic hands laying on the pavement in a white loincloth as two younger men washed him. We passed quietly, and when we were out of earshot I turned to my companion.

"That man was dead," I said. It only occurred to me as I said it.

His face was pale. "I know".

I had never seen a dead human before, but that sure was about to change. Over the next few days, I became as acquainted with the dead as I was with the malaria tablets poking out of my washbag that made me feel nauseous just looking at them. We saw the dead as we pressed ourselves up against the walls of the narrow streets to avoid funeral processions of stretchered bodies held aloft by men chanting "Ram ram". We saw dead people burned on countless pyres, their inhabitants clearly visible in various stages of immolation. We saw bodies being bathed, bodies floating in the river, the bones of the long-dead and the recently dead.

That kid in the Sixth Sense had nothing on us.

I sometimes wonder if at the heart of the West's problems is an inability to face death. We're obsessed with youth, of slowing the passage of time. We remove our elderly from public sight, treat them as an embarrassment. We consume obsessively, distract ourselves with whatever we can get our hands on-the internet, food, fake news- not just to get away from the 'selves' we are told we fear, but also to escape that most terrifying of truths; that, in the words of Beckett, we are 'born astride a grave'. Even our funeral rites are performed with maximum discretion, behind closed doors and shrouded in mystery. We act as if it will never happen to us. We think this will meant that it won't.

In Varanasi, it didn't take long for the dead to become like silent companions. Where at first I felt a need to bow my head or make some sort of gesture of reverence as a stretcher went past, after the second day there I barely batted an eyelid. The dead were present as I bought ice cream and bickered with my companion, as I photographed cows and joked about getting ripped off.  

Death's constant presence afforded a new layer of richness to the process of being alive. I started yoga on that trip and quickly became hooked. Its practice was a kind of remembrance of something deeper, something vast- even if that 'something' lasted a few seconds.

A few days after we left, I found out that my paternal grandmother had died. I can't pretend that my new take on death helped with the grieving process in any way, but I can say that I had the sense, somehow, of life and death being cyclical, of my grandmother still being around in some sense- hopefully without the inherent racism. 

My ex went back to France, became a dad, looks happy on Facebook.

I carried on with yoga.

I drove across America.

I took some risks.

I no longer have to timetable fun activities.

I refuse to analyse any of the above.

I guess we can call that progress.